Uncontrolled anger has become our No. 1 mental health issue. Though we have the understanding and the skills to treat the anger epidemic in this country, as a culture, we have been unwilling to accept the violence problem as one that belongs to each and every one of us. We have sought scapegoats in minority cultures, racial groups, and now the mentally ill. When we are ready to accept that the demon is within us all, we can begin to treat the cycle of anger and suffering.
By Laura Hayes, Slate, April 9 2014. Laura L. Hayes, Ph.D., a psychologist in Bethesda, Md., works with adults, couples, and teens integrating mindfulness with traditional therapies.
Let's reflect on anger, that strongest of emotions, that when acted upon, especially in the heat of its onslaught, will bring consequences that often last a lifetime. While we agree with Dr. Hayes that "the demon in within us all," and that we can being to treat the cycle when we accept that reality, we do have a different "take" on what she calls "scapegoats" such as minority culture, racial groups and more recently the mentally ill.
There is clearly incontrovertible evidence that those with a mental illness have suffered, unjustly, from a misjudgement of the conventional culture, that only mentally people would, could and do commit horrible acts of violence on other human beings. And Dr. Hayes is right to point out that a very small proportion of violent acts are committed by the truly mentally ill. So let's not blame that small group of people, in another of our collective myopic acts of hubristic denial, for the level of violence that we all face.
There is also evidence that racism and minorities (how could one possibly disentangle these two categories) have been "blamed" for too much of the violence and anger that we witness in our daily news briefs.
Nevertheless, let's take a look at how any proposed list of techniques, strategies, tactics, even aphorisms that instruct individuals on how to "manage their anger". Before any of these approaches can be even entertained, by an individual who is struggling with an roiling anger, over whatever trigger that might have provoked that anger, the "gift" of that moment must not be lost.
There is a clarity and a resonance and a deep and profound vibration to the experience of anger, when one is unjustly demonized, when one experiences the demonizing of a friend or family member, when a social system, including too many workplaces, schools, universities and colleges, inflict judgements on individual people, that are frequently the consequence (unacknowledged and thereby unchallenged) of a previous act of hurtfulness, meanness, vengeance, and perhaps professional assassination. So often, when I have experienced a swelling up of the deep reservoir of anger that took up permanent residence in my body, and in my mind and in my spirit, at a very early age, (when I found myself on the wrong end of some belt, or some wooden instrument of punishment for an act that I either did not commit or for which the enforcer had no concept of what or why I had done whatever it was that prompted the "punishment."
It happened in grade four, when I gave a friendly poke on the shoulder to a passing friend, upon our return from lunch, just to pass greetings, only to hear, out of an anal, spinster middle-aged control-freak teacher named Helen Swain, "John, come to my desk; I am going to give you the strap!"
There was no place or opportunity to plead my case so I took the punishment, fully aware that if and when my mother learned of my misdemeanour, I would be doubly punished at home. When she learned, she washed my mouth out with Lifebuoy soap, as if somehow that would cleanse me of my "sin".
It happened, too frequently to keep an accurate account, when I misplayed a piece of music, while practising the piano, during a twelve-year stint as a piano student from age five through 17,
and my mother thought, perceived, believed or needed to inflict pain in order to enhance my "performance" when, really she was polishing her own reputation through her projection of her need for perfection onto her first-born. I hated both her anger and her violence, especially since I was completely separated and detached from whatever it was she was attempting to achieve with her modus operandi.
It happened, much later, when I learned from a colleague, that the then "chair" of the local school board was "bad-mouthing me" using names that included, "Jesus Atkins," in her diatribe to other school board members, all of whom were the politically elected executives of the school board in which I worked. As I was "on leave" working in a community college where she also worked, over the pleadings from my secretary against my taking action, I marched into the offending "chair's" office, told her to leave my reputation alone, and that if she had something to say about me, to say it to my face. Of course, I was angry, and of course, I proceeded to express (some would say "vent") that anger, in a politically incorrect manner and venue.
It happened when a teacher colleague told a dyslexic student who had just enrolled in her grade twelve English class, "You had better go back to Atkins' class; there are no standards there!" ( I had previously taught him in grade eleven, a brilliant mind but a student who could literally not write, while I found his thoughts at the genius level, and gave him a C, because of his writing and spelling difficulties.) He visited me years later, proudly wearing his professional engineer's ring, and thank me for my contribution to his learning!
It happened when, in the course of a project to repair a church organ, I met with two women, one of whom was the church warden, the other a member of the "founding and funding family" of the church. who was passed over in the warden appointment. This was the first meeting of the three people following the warden announcement, and I thought it reasonable that we should provide an attempt to clear the air, prior to opening another file.
"How are you doing?" I inquired of the "thwarted" woman.
"I'm fine, and here is a list of all the things we have to do to fix the organ, so there is no need for this meeting," she replied.
Sensing an opportunity to push back, and of course, taking it, I said, "Gee, I feel quite parented, and need to have a discussion about our approach to this issue so that we can all participate."
"I've heard enough out of you, so I am leaving," she retorted, picking up her papers, and leave she did, never to speak to me again in the succeeding dozen months plus of my stay there.
It happened in the same four-point parish, when one warden demanded the opportunity to "show a film" from a specific right-wing source and that an announcement be made to that effect in Sunday's service.
"I am happy to announce that such a film will be shown on Tuesday evening, but only after I have viewed the film first," I replied, knowing full well that he would not be satisfied with that response.
After a few moments, he cornered me in the sanctuary, while the "reception" was going on in the church hall.
"You need to pack your bags and get out of here!" was his retort to my request to view the film.
"I am not leaving, Jim; we are going to have to work this out!" I angrily retorted.
He walked away from that push back, and I proceeded to request a meeting with the warden, and my supervisor to negotiate a resolution, only to find that he did not and would not attend. We formally requested his resignation, and when that we not forthcoming, we delivered a letter to him, informing him that his resignation had been accepted from the position as warden.
Of course, my anger boiled throughout both of these incidents, and without it, I do not know if I could or would survived.
It happened again, when I was challenged, I felt unjustly, by a pastoral counselling trainer, in a supervision session, only moments after I had learning that my faculty advisor in grad school had just died. Three times he uttered the words, "You have to get your shit together!" in a paternal manner, when I had resisted even attending his supervisory session, until I settled.
After the third "admonishment" to get my shit together, I spoke as angrily and as defiantly as even I had," If you say that once again, I am going to issue a writ against you and your counselling centre."
"Get out of my office!" he retorted. And, of course, I did.
I needed that anger, then, and I have needed my anger in many situations, in order to avoid even greater risk and threat.
When people in authority abuse their authority, and abuse the people under that authority, I have found my anger my only and best ally. It caused me to throw a frying pan, containing two fried eggs into a sink full of dishes, as my response to my mother's condemnation of my father, within a month of his passing, "Your father was no good, and that is why your father and my father never got along!" was her "tipping point" line, that sent me over the brink.
Of course, I rejected her final judgement of the man to whom she was married for sixty-plus years, and whom she consistently pummelled in derision every month of my life, without provoking any defensive response from me. Finally, my anger would not permit another default from me on his behalf.
It was, however, while "stationed" in a remote outpost in the "wild west" of Colorado, where the NRA was the best supported political entity, and the macho-masculine archetype ruled with an iron fist, and where gays were given only the meanest contempt, and the urban head office, remained completely detached and unsupportive of any work that was going on in the "outback" as they undoubtedly called it, that my anger did me in. I pounded the walls, as if I were living in a cell of solitary confinement (which I fully believed I was) and I walked the streets and I drove the back roads, all in an attempt to rid myself of the imprisoning bars of my situation, including a middle of the night phone call pleading to be placed in another assignment (the call was never answered!)
As one spiritual advisor who had lived in such communities put it bluntly, "Get out of there as fast as you can; staying will kill you! I have lived in towns like that one and I know what I am talking about."
It was my anger that drove me, both toward attempting to make a difference in the lives of those people I was charged with serving, and against the power structure who categorically refused to acknowledge the reality of the situation into which I had been thrown. Well over a decade later, I continue to harbour anger that my person and my situation were "out of sight-out of mind" to those who had responsibility for my work, performance and my reputation.
And I want to thank God for that anger and the energy that it continues to provide for much of what I still have left to write.
There are some, like those responsible for writing the next edition of the DSM V, who want to find a psychiatric diagnosis for anger, as they have done for grief. We, however, resist that temptation, believing instead, that since it is an integral component of every human being's character, as well as every human being's experience, to make it another "psychiatric illness" would only reinforce the inappropriate link already too deeply embedded in the public consciousness of violence and mental illness, without adequately providing a platform of understanding and appreciation for this trait.
And as for those psych wards that hire psychiatrists to head their "units" who enforce rules of repression on patients, in the name of providing staff security, I have nothing but contempt for the hiring teams and for those practitioners who insist on that kind of perverted priorities. And I will continue to "shout from the roof-tops whenever and for whatever treason I deem it necessary to invoke my "anger" demon, in the name of enhancing my life and the lives of those who continue to suffer under the oppression of those whose immunity may be provided by their contracts, but whose impunity is not without risk and danger, in a world gone so politically correct that a legitimate argument can be made that "political correctness" is the new religion.
I will not be attending services in any of its many "cathedrals."
(Editor's Note: None of these words is intended to condone, support or encourage any act of anger-inspired violence in which another human being is injured, maimed or killed, for whatever purpose, whether in a domestic or political or even a military situation. The writer abhors violence, but respects anger as a vital human emotion with many gifts.)